In November 2013, former US Secretary of State John Kerry created a social media frenzy with a speech delivered at the Organization of American States (OAS), the world’s oldest regional forum.
“The era of the Monroe Doctrine is over,” he announced.
Kerry was of course referring to the nearly 200-year-old symbol of US gunboat diplomacy in Central and South America, and the Caribbean. Named after President James Monroe in 1823, the doctrine basically states that “America is for the Americans”, and that the United States has the right to intervene in any nation south of its borders to ensure that other countries do not exert their influence.
In the 1800s it was sent as a warning to presumably predatory Europeans.
Later, President Theodore Roosevelt coined the term “talk softly but carry a big stick” and expanded the doctrine, insisting that it was the responsibility of the US to ensure that Latin American nations “behaved with a just regard for their obligations towards outsiders”.
The “outsiders” were US citizens and companies, like United Fruit.
Latin American countries from Mexico to the tip of Chile have long demonised the doctrine which historically has given Washington a blank cheque to intervene in the sovereign affairs of every country south of the Rio Grande. This included military invasions.
So when President Barack Obama’s secretary of state announced in 2013 that the Monroe Doctrine had officially expired, the world took note.
But that was not the end of the story, as President Donald Trump made very clear last September in an eyebrow-raising address to the UN General Assembly.
“It has been the formal policy of our country since President Monroe that we reject the interference of foreign nations in this hemisphere,” said Trump.
This time, the reference was taken as a warning to Russia and China not to meddle in what the US once called its back yard, specifically in oil-rich Venezuela, Cuba and Nicaragua, which Trump described as “the troika of tyranny”.
“Today we proudly proclaim for all to hear: the Monroe Doctrine is alive and well,” said Trump’s National Security Adviser John Bolton, in a speech to Cuban Bay of Pigs veterans in Miami in April.
Many Latin Americans see the resurgence of the Monroe Doctrine not just as a threat to left-wing regimes.
The White House is using crippling economic and financial sanctions as a means to bend or break “uncooperative” countries.
Mexico’s decision to cave into pressure to send troops to its southern border to stop the entry of Central American migrants, so that Trump would not impose stiff tariffs on Mexican imports, is the most recent example.
Sanctions aimed at cutting off economic oxygen to President Nicolas Maduro in Venezuela and his allies in Cuba have been less successful. But they are nevertheless painful.
Former Chilean Ambassador to the US Juan Gabriel Valdez said this is a dangerous trend for the entire region.
“There are new generations that have not lived in a world where a populist president governs the United States and declares the right of his country to intervene in Latin America whenever he chooses. The Monroe Doctrine is being used as the principle to rule our relationships,” warned Valdez.
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo seemed to prove that point when he stopped in Santiago just as Chile’s conservative President Sebastian Pinera was preparing a state visit to China, Chile’s number-one trading partner.
Pompeo warned him that China lays traps, ignores rules and corrupts countries where it does business. This was seen as a brazen attempt to dictate the terms of the US relationship with Pinera, who planned to visit the Huawei plant in China a few days later.
“The opinions expressed by Trump’s secretary of state are unacceptable and arrogant,” said former Chilean Foreign Minister Heraldo Munoz.
“He came here to tell Chile how to conduct its international economic relations. Does Pompeo think that Chile is part of the United States’s old backyard?”
It may be a rhetorical question.
While the US is looking away from the rest of the world, the Hispanic demographics of the US are giving more electoral power to Latinos. Meanwhile, China and increasingly Russia are projecting their power in the region. And so after years ignoring its neighbours, the White House is taking notice of what it again sees as a region key to its strategic interests.
The question is whether it will do so by relying heavily on an anachronistic doctrine that – at least briefly – seemed to have been laid to rest.